Wordcatcher Tales: girmitya, kala pani

From India: The Rise of an Asian Giant, by Dietmar Rothermund (Yale U. Press, 2008), p. 1:

India is a state encompassing a civilization. It includes a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups which share a common cultural background. Its historical continuity is amazing…. In the recent past India has also become a territorial nation state with defined borders and institutions guarding its territorial integrity. The idea of a clearly delineated territoriality was not prevalent in India in earlier times. The Himalayas in the north and the ocean encircling the country appeared to those living inside it as ‘natural’ boundaries. In fact the mountain people never conceived of the Himalayas as a boundary and they ‘transgressed’ it in many ways. Many of the coastal people, on the other hand, participated throughout the ages in maritime trade. The orthodox prejudice against crossing the kala pani (black water) was not shared by them. This aversion to seafaring was a relatively late phenomenon in an era when people in India became more introverted and defensive.

The awareness of the ‘natural’ boundaries of India did not imply a feeling of national identity in territorial terms. Nationalism first found expression among educated people and did not affect the common people for along time. The poor people from northern India who were transported to Fiji as indentured servants to work on the sugar plantations did not refer to themselves as ‘Indians’ but as girmityas. The word girmit was a Hindi neologism derived from ‘agreement’, the document which bound them to their servitude. Their identity was derived from this common fate. It was only later when emissaries of Mahatma Gandhi reached Fiji that these girmityas became Indians.

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Filed under Fiji, India, language, migration, nationalism

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